Lady Bird Johnson, A Birthday Tribute
Christened Claudia Alta Taylor when she was born in near Karnack, Texas, in 1912, she received her nickname as a small child; and as “Lady Bird” she was known and loved throughout America. Perhaps the name was prophetic, as there has seldom been a first lady so attuned to nature and the importance of conserving the environment.
Her mother died when Lady Bird was five, so she was reared by her father, her aunt, and family servants. From her prosperous father she learned much about the business world. An excellent student, she also learned to love classical literature. At the University of Texas she earned bachelor’s degrees in arts and in journalism. In 1934 she met Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a congressional secretary. He courted her from Washington with letters, telegrams and telephone calls. Seven weeks later he proposed. They were married in November 1934.
The years that followed were devoted to her husband’s political career. Lady Bird helped keep his congressional office open during World War II when he volunteered for naval service; and in 1955, when he had a severe heart attack, she helped his staff keep things running until he could return to his post as Senate majority leader. He once remarked that voters “would happily have elected her over me.” After repeated miscarriages, she gave birth to Lynda Bird in 1944. Luci Baines was born three years later.
In the election of 1960, Lady Bird successfully stumped for Democratic candidates across 35,000 miles of campaign trail. As wife of the vice president, she became an ambassador of goodwill by visiting 33 foreign countries. Moving to the White House after Kennedy’s assassination, she did her best to ease a painful transition. She soon set her own stamp of Texas hospitality on social events, but these were not her chief concern. Mrs. Johnson created a First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, then expanded her program to the entire nation. She took a highly active part in her husband’s war-on-poverty program, especially the Head Start project for preschool children.
When the presidential term ended, the Johnsons returned to Texas, where Lyndon died in 1973. Mrs. Johnson’s White House Diary, published in 1970, and a 1981 documentary film, The First Lady, A Portrait of Lady Bird Johnson, give sensitive and detailed views of her contributions to the president’s Great Society administration.